ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Mekelle, a city nestled in the arid, mountainous Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, is steeped in the lore of its guerrilla fighters, who marched in sandals to Addis Ababa to topple a Communist dictatorship in 1991.
Now, war is returning to a place where rusting tanks, small airplanes, and military equipment are displayed outside the museum, and the Tigrayan legacy of armed struggle is never far away.
Towering monuments all over town honour martyrs and sacrifices Tigrayans endured through an uprising that lasted longer than a decade. It was to be followed by an even worse 1998-2000 war against the neighbouring nation of Eritrea over a border dispute. Thousands of young Tigrayans and conscripts from all over the country died in trenches and minefields.
Though Tigrayans make up just 5% of Ethiopia’s population, their leading role in the 1991 revolution gave them sway over the country in the decades that followed, until Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy took power two years ago.
Two weeks ago the central government launched an assault on Tigray to capture its leaders, after what Addis Ababa called a surprise attack by regional forces on army troops stationed in the region. After two weeks of fighting, the government says its forces are now advancing towards Mekelle.
Since the fighting erupted, a communications blackout has made it impossible for most media to reach Mekelle or speak with civilians there.
When Reuters visited the region two years ago, Mekelle’s streets bustled with yellow three-wheeled motorized tuk-tuks and cars. People sipped Ethiopian coffee in outdoor cafes, speakers blaring songs in the local Tigrinya language.
But there was already a sense of defiance in the air. Abiy had ordered the arrest of Tigrayan former officials accused of corruption and human rights abuses. Residents, who would discuss politics mainly on condition of anonymity in a country with a long history of repression, said Tigrayans would not accept “humiliation”.
“Nobody will kneel down here,” a tour guide said.
On Thursday, Tigray forces accused the government of bombing a university in Mekelle. There was no immediate response from the government, although officials have said they are only attacking military targets.
The government says it blames the region’s Tigray People’s Liberation Front leadership for the conflict, and not Tigrayans, or even the TPLF more generally.
“There could be members of TPLF that are innocent, also the special forces, the young population,” said Mulu Nega, named head of an interim government for the region by the federal authorities this week.
Mekelle’s wide boulevards and electricity lines stretching into the rural countryside are testament to the TPLF’s power when the party led Ethiopia’s ruling coalition from 1991 until Abiy took power in 2018. The town has some of the best infrastructure of any Ethiopian city outside Addis Ababa.
Though most Tigrayans are subsistence farmers, Mekelle has a handful of upmarket hotels with gaudy chandeliers, and a modern airport, normally with several flights per day to the capital.
In a statement this week, the TPLF said hardships are part of life in wartime. It promised to give Ethiopian troops “hell” on its home turf.
When Tigray held regional elections in September in defiance of the federal government, the TPLF won by a landslide. Journalists were not permitted to travel there, but voters contacted remotely expressed pride in the TPLF’s role ending the Communist dictatorship of the 1980s and putting Ethiopia on a path to economic prosperity and stability in the decades since.
The TPLF is celebrated in Mekelle as liberators and war heroes, and billboards keep decades-old memories fresh. Abiy’s face, ubiquitous on posters and bumper stickers in many parts of Ethiopia during the heady beginning of his premiership, never became a prominent fixture there.
The government acknowledges the difficulty it would have in winning over a population that has so long revered the TPLF.
“To separate this people from this party we need to conduct more communications and public relations work, because the people should understand the reality,” Mulu said.
(Reporting and writing by Maggie Fick; Editing by Katharine Houreld and Peter Graff)